Saturday, May 4, 2013

It was a perfect summer camp experience

...for Western Illinois Family magazine

I don't always feel entirely qualified to write a column for this magazine that addresses the topic featured on the cover.  But this time, I think I am.
After all, summer camp experiences have been a part of just about every stage of my life. Ditto my spouse, whose own summers in the deep, buggy woods have been the source of years of oft-repeated memories and tallish tales alike.
For me, camp was kind of an irritating interruption of those halcyon days of summer in my hometown of Galva. I would be minding my own business, pursuing a day-after-day routine that would see me burst out the backdoor not long after dawn for parts unknown, then drop by for a peanut butter sandwich and a gallon of grape kool-aid around midday, drag myself in for the family suppers my mother insisted on when I heard the five o'clock whistle, then head back out for an evening of spotlight tag and "bat, bat, fly under my hat" before being dragged in for bath and bed.
I was just fine with the endless-summer lifestyle I pursued in those days, but my mother had other ideas. Maybe she thought I needed to broaden my social and cultural horizons which, at that time, mostly consisted of playing with the kids in the neighborhood and reading comic books. Or maybe she just wanted me out of the house for awhile. In any case, she gently broached the topic something like this:
She: How would you like to go to camp?
Me: Camp? Me? Uh, no thanks.
She: Wonderful. You leave on Monday.
Once committed, I dared to dream that the camp I'd be going to would be something like the storied Triple R Ranch, the Disney-driven, western-style paradise enjoyed by my all-time favorite TV heroes, Spin and Marty.  I could, I thought, learn to ride a horse, while hanging out with my heroes, along with fellow campers like Joe, Moochie and the winsome Annette, as played by my eternal lady love, Annette Funicello.
Instead, I was sentenced to a week at a dusty, dodgy little church camp featuring mosquitoes the size of B-52 bombers and a set of sulfur springs that gave the whole place an overwhelming aroma of rotten eggs.
Meanwhile, my wife took an entirely different approach to camp life.
That is, she liked it.
As a second-generation habituĂ© of Camp Lookout,  a beautiful little settlement nestled in the Mississippi bluffs overlooking Montrose, Iowa and the Mormon enclave of Nauvoo, Illinois, she displayed signs of the dogged, never-say-die attitudes that would serve her well in her future life as an elementary school teacher and the mother of our two sons. She started going to the place when she was eight, and stuck it out, year after year, until her mid-teens.
"I was determined to keep going until they made me a junior counselor," she said.
As someone who had, as far as I can remember, never had a goal of any kind through the same period of life, I admired her "can-do" spirit.  I was impressed, too, with her tales of arduous, uphill, overnight hikes from a remote camping site back to the main camp, and the yearly invasion of "Mormon Flies," the impolite southeastern Iowa term for the May Flies that rose out of the nearby river each year and covered the camp with their sodden little corpses.  Not many years ago, we were exploring some Iowa river roads near her mom's hometown of Fort Madison, when we found ourselves near tiny Montrose and the site of her girlhood trials and triumphs. We found a sign pointing to the camp and, soon enough, entered the gate that led up that killer hill.
Thing was, though, it wasn't all that steep. Nor was it all that far from the stone fire circle that marked their primitive campsite to the well-maintained cabins and swimming pool that still make up the main camp.
"Hmmm. I guess it got smaller," she said.
"Or maybe you just got bigger," I muttered.
But with youthful summer camp memories abounding, we were determined that both of our sons would experience and enjoy the sense of adventure and independence that comes with a few days or weeks away from home. Our younger son was--and still is--highly sports minded, so most of the summertime trips he took were to baseball and basketball camps, which was not much of a strain on us, except for the year he caught on with an AAU basketball team that played its games in convenient, close-to-home spots like Indianapolis, the Czech Republic and the Moons of Saturn. But it was our older son, Colin, who really caught the summer camp bug, and eventually led us to our camp-parent Waterloo.
He had, at a relatively young age, discovered theatre, which, to him, was spelled g-i-r-l-s. Luckily, we hooked him up with the marvelous camps run by Galesburg theatre maven Rossann Baker-Priestley and her parents, Woody and Marion Baker, in both Bridgman, Michigan and the Bakers' hometown of Avon.
Those camps were a dream come true for Colin, who enjoyed being in plays and hanging with the older kids who stayed and worked there, especially those of the female persuasion. We enjoyed those times, too, especially the performances that marked the end of each camping week.
Until one year.
The Avon sessions always ended on Sunday, so we were looking forward to driving down, seeing the show, and bringing our boy home. Colin was a young teenager that summer, so we figured he was finally old enough to get the most out of camp and the training he was receiving.
Maybe he'd be a successful actor someday, we thought.
Maybe he'd be rich.
Maybe he'd be famous.
In any case, we were anxious for Sunday to come. His grandmother was driving down from Chicago to see him, too. It was going to be a big day.
Then the phone rang.
On Saturday.
It was Colin.
"I guess you're not coming to the performance, mom," he told my wife.
"Of course we are, honey," she replied. "Your grandma just got here, and we're really looking forward to seeing you tomorrow."
"No, mom," he intoned. "It was today. Camp is over. I'm the only kid left."
Time stood still.
"It made me physically ill," she would later say. We had, somehow, stupidly, missed the fact that the camp schedule had been altered that year to accommodate a wedding the Bakers wanted to attend.
It was Saturday. The last day of camp. We had missed it. We had missed him.
With my wife too devastated to speak, I quickly got on the phone with Rossann, profusely apologized, and made arrangements for Colin to get a ride to Galesburg with a (female, of course) counselor. I would meet him there and bring him home.
I can't begin to tell you how bad my wife and I felt on that sad Saturday.  Try as we might, we had blown it. We had failed as parents. We had let him down.
Colin, on the other hand, was downright chipper when I picked him up. I was glad he was taking it so well. Slowly, through a combination of subtle observation, instinct, and my memories of my own similar take on things when I was a kid, I realized why.
You see, while Colin was probably a little disappointed when he didn't see our smiling faces in the audience that day, once he discovered we weren't dead in a ditch somewhere between Galva and Avon, he realized what a gift he had received.
We felt bad. We felt guilty. And, by golly, we would do just about anything to make up for it. For him, it was a veritable get-out-of-jail-free card. For the rest of that summer, anytime we were about to make him do something he didn't want to do, or bust him for some teenage travail, we would stop. And remember. And let him off easy.
As far as summer camp experiences go--and as far as teenage boys go--that's just about perfect.

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